Towards a Sustainable Agriculture – The Living Soil Part 2

Organic NZ Magazine: May/June 2001
Author: Lady Eve Balfour

In the January issue, Lady Eve Balfour’s article outlined the early years of the organic movement and listed a number of reasons why chemical agriculture is doomed. This concluding section gives practical advice on caring for the soil and then looks at the aim of sustainable agriculture systems.

We still hear, though less frequently than we used to, the argument that there is no scientific basis for advocating exclusive use of organic manures, such as farmyard manure and compost, because “there is absolutely no difference between a plant nutrient contained in organic materials and the same nutrient in inorganic chemical form”.

There may be no chemical, or other easily analysable difference, but there is a demonstrable functional difference. Anything having an effect on root distribution, for example, may have an effect on plant nutrition because it will influence the volume of soil explored.

Thus good soil structure in depth, such as is obtained in a biologically active soil, can improve productivity simply by increasing the depth of soil exploited for water and nutrients. There is now well documented scientific evidence that fertiliser concentrations of N and P have an influence on localised root branching. They induce it at the expense of deep rooting exploration. This could well lead to luxury uptakes of N and P linked to inadequate uptake of other nutrients.

There are implications in this for nutrient imbalance in the crop and thereby some risk of nutrient imbalance in the animals and humans feeding upon it. If root activity is a factor in the development and maintenance of soil structure, there are also implications in this for the overall pattern of soil development.

This is the work I was referring to earlier as possibly throwing light on some Haughley findings. (A reference to it is M.C. Drew Ag. Research Council Letcome Laboratory Annual Report for 1975 -1976.)

In a biologically active soil, which implies one adequately provided with organic matter and natural rock minerals, the latter are released as the plants want them. Moreover the roots are presented with a complete diet from which they can pick and choose.


Lady Eve Balfour

Plants are highly selective in such circumstances, hence the value of some of the deep rooting weeds which the organic farmer calls herbs when he sows them deliberately. Normal chemical fertilisers, apart from the disadvantage just mentioned, are far too simple. A plant’s mineral requirements are many times wider in range. By giving only two or three which stimulate bulk growth, others, equally important, are exhausted, or locked up in the immediate neighbourhood of the rhizosphere, thus leading, as already mentioned, to unbalanced nutrition of the plant and often, through their solubility, to serious environmental pollution.

Plant nutrients do not, as was once taught, all have to be reduced to simple inorganic solutions in order to be absorbed. Plants can ingest quite complex organic molecules, unbroken. The history of DDT provides irrefutable evidence for this. So do such symbiotic mechanisms as mycorrhizal association, whereby the plant may well derive some nutrient equivalent to vitamins in animal nutrition.

A possible additional factor, for which I readily admit there is at present no scientific proof but which seems to me to provide an interpretation consistent with many observations, is that in nature’s food-chains, a plant’s normal method of mineral intake is not direct, but second-hand, the mineral plant-foods being, as it were, by-products of the activity of the soil micro-flora and other members of the soil population.

Such by-products have a far more complex and comprehensive formula than N, P and K and, moreover, are living substances. Inorganic chemicals are inert. A food chain is not only a material circuit, but also an energy circuit. Soil fertility has been defined as the capacity of soil to receive, store and transmit energy. A substance may be the same chemically but very different as a conductor of living energy. The hypothesis is that the energy manifesting in birth, growth, reproduction, death, decay and rebirth can only flow through channels composed of living cells, and that when the flow is interrupted by inert matter it can be short-circuited with consequent damage to some part of the food chain, not necessarily where the block occurred. The Anthroposophical Society’s Research establishment at Dornach in this Switzerland has provided some evidence in support of such a view.

I would like to see much more research undertaken in this field.


Defining organic

Now I want to put forward what I believe our aims should be in evolving a sustainable agriculture, and then, finally, pass on to you some thoughts on organic farming as I see it.

The criteria for a sustainable agriculture can be summed up in one word – permanence, which means adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely; that utilise, as far as possible, only renewable resources; that do not grossly pollute the environment; and that foster life energy (or if preferred biological activity) within the soil and throughout the cycles of all the involved food-chains.

This is what biological husbandry sets out to attempt – with an increasing degree of understanding and success among its practitioners. Throughout the world, as a result of their own experience, they sincerely believe that they can offer a genuine and viable alternative agriculture, capable of solving many of the problems of mankind. This possibility, as well as the need for it, is becoming increasingly recognised in academic and scientific circles.

I am often asked how, in a broad sense, I define organic farming as opposed to conventional farming. Though I prefer the term biological husbandry because of its emphasis on life, the short answer is balance: however I think it is necessary to amplify a little.

Contrary to the views held by some, I am sure that the techniques of organic farming cannot be imprisoned in a rigid set of rules. They depend essentially on the outlook of the farmer. Without a positive and ecological approach, it is not possible to farm organically. The approach of the modern conventional farmer is negative, narrow and fragmentary, and consequently produces imbalance. His attitude to “pests” and “weeds”, for example, is to regard them as enemies to be killed – if possible exterminated. When he attacks them with lethal chemicals, he seldom gives a thought to the effect this may have on the food supply or habitat of other forms of wildlife among whom he has many more friends than foes. The predatory insects and the insectivorous birds are obvious examples.

The attitude of the organic farmer, who has trained himself to think ecologically, is different. He tries to see the living world as a whole. He regards so-called pests and weeds as part of the natural pattern of the biota, probably necessary to its stability and permanence, to be utilised rather than attacked. Throughout his operations, he endeavours to achieve his objective by co-operating with natural agencies in place of relying on man-made substitutes. He studies what appear to be nature’s rules – as manifested in a healthy wilderness – and attempts to adapt them to his own farm needs, instead of flouting them.


Bringing back the balance

One of the first things the organic farmer will notice about a natural eco-system such as a wilderness or a natural forest is balance and stability. The innumerable different species of fauna and flora that go to make up such a community, achieve, as a result of their interdependence, whether in cooperation or competition, collective immortality. Seldom, if ever, is any species eliminated; seldom, if ever, does any species multiply to pest proportions. Thus the organic farmer, if he has a crop badly attacked by some pest, let us say (and this can happen, even to organic farmers!) recognises that this is a symptom of imbalance in his local environment, and he first looks to see if some faulty technique of his own has been responsible – often it has.

This does not mean that he can always avoid emergency remedial measures but these he employs only when there is a real emergency, not as a routine. He strives instead to bring about biological balance, and it is remarkable the extent to which organic farmers and growers do in fact achieve this. I could give you several examples, but one must suffice.

Some years ago a large scale organic commercial grower of my acquaintance – growing vegetables, fruit and flowers – was visited by a team of scientists from Cambridge University. They included plant pathologists and entomologists. They knew it was an unsprayed holding and they came looking for disease and pests. They found isolated examples of everything they expected to find, but, as they put it, they failed to find a single case of crop damage.

Besides biological balance, the ecologically minded organic farmer takes note of, and tries to apply, other apparent biological roles. For example, Nature’s diversity of species he adapts through rotations, under-sowing, and avoiding monoculture of crops or animals. Nature’s habit of filtering sunlight and rain through some form of protective soil cover, he adapts by such practices as cover-cropping and mulching. Top soil on the top appears to be nature’s plan. Organic matter is always deposited on the surface. It is left to the earthworms and some insects to take it below. The organic farmer also puts his compost and farmyard manure on, or very near, the surface and in carrying out mechanical cultivations keeps soil-inversion to a minimum, the tine cultivator being preferred to the plough.

Nature’s highly efficient re-cycling system ensures provision of living food for all organisms in the food chain from soil bacteria and fungi to large fauna; the organic farmer therefore lays great stress on the conservation and return to the soil of all organic residues. His aim is to feed and to assist proliferation of the soil population and to leave it to feed the crop.

Finally, and of equal importance, he notes, and tries to reproduce, the almost perfect structure of a biologically active soil which alone ensures the three most important characteristics of a fertile soil – good aeration, water-holding capacity, and free drainage.

It is quite astonishing the extent to which this all-important property of good soil is neglected in modern agriculture. Poor soil structure leads to imbalance between water and air in the pore spaces of the soil. Many apparent mineral or trace mineral deficiencies in the soil turn out to be oxygen deficiencies. When that is corrected, the others disappear.

In most agricultural soils there is really plenty of mineral plant food for the nutritional requirements of plants, even when continuously cropped, if their roots are allowed to exploit it downwards. The key to this is good soil structure, which is greatly influenced by the activity of earthworms. The techniques of modern farming tend to destroy good structure in a number of ways, such as by the impaction of heavy implements, by carrying out cultivations in unsuitable weather conditions, and by failure to provide sufficient organic food and/or a suitable lime status for the earthworm population.


The challenge of the future

All these faults are the outcome of failure to think ecologically – they are symptoms of a degree of fragmentation in our approach to the living world which has become a real threat to our survival. Throughout biological evolution, starting from single celled organisms right up to the complexity of rain forests, the process has been characterised by increasing diversity among species, lengthening of the food chains, and progressive enrichment of the environment.

For the first time in the history of the planet, the actions of modern man appear to be putting this process into reverse. Whole species of fauna and flora are being eliminated, the food chains are becoming shorter, and the environment progressively impoverished. It only takes a little imagination to picture what could happen if the trend continues.

What are we going to do about it? This is the real challenge for the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and in my view it is one of education. The Soil Association is doing an excellent pioneering job in adult education into the principles and practice of biological husbandry. It is now urgently necessary that a still wider aspect of ecology should also form part of the regular curriculum of all schools, starting at the primary stage. The trouble is we have first to teach the teachers, and here, I think, we must be agreed on what we want to teach.

There are two motivations behind an ecological approach – one is based on self-interest, however enlightened, i.e. when consideration for other species is taught solely because on that depends the survival of our own.

The other motivation springs from a sense that the biota is a whole, of which we are a part, and that the other species which compose it and helped to create it are entitled to existence in their own right. This is the wholeness approach and it is my hope and belief that this is what we, as a federation, stand for.

If I am right, this means that we cannot escape from the ethical and spiritual values of life for they are part of wholeness. To ignore them and their implications would be to pursue another form of fragmentation. Therefore, I hold that what we have to teach is the attitude defined by Aldo Leopold as “A Land Ethic”. This requires that we extend the concept of “community” to include all the species of life with which we share the planet. We must foster a reverence for all life, even that which we are forced to control, and we must, as Leopold put it – “Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem, but examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

That quotation expresses what I believe should be our guidelines.

Address given by the late Lady Eve Balfour to an IFOAM conference in Switzerland in 1977.